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Right Now | Muse of the Hemispheres

Authorial Synapses

January-February 2004

William Faulkner didn't so much write The Sound and the Fury as erupt with it, pouring out the masterpiece in a matter of weeks, his words and ideas as unstoppable as a flood. "That emotion definite and physical yet nebulous to describe," he wrote of this creative explosion, "that ecstasy, that eager and joyous faith and anticipation of surprise." Like Faulkner, many writers have periods of frenzied inspiration—and, conversely, of torturous block—which they attribute to causes as dubious as divine intervention, hallucinogens, and visits from the elusive muse.

Illustration by Tom Mosser

Scientists have traditionally ignored such mysteries, deeming matters of literary creativity too intangible, subjective, and ultimately untestable for serious study. But in The Midnight Disease, instructor in neurology Alice W. Flaherty '85, M.D. '94, seeks to elevate the scientific study of creativity—defined as the production of novel and valuable things—by arguing that literary inspiration, writer's block, and the drive to write all stem from interactions among, and changes within, particular brain regions. She suggests that new technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which records changes in brain activity while the patient performs specific tasks, finally enable scientists to test these connections. "Soon," she says, "we will have information about brain activity during creativity that has never been available before."

For years, the study of creativity languished in touchy-feely motivational books that probed "inner children" and simplistically celebrated the brain's right hemisphere. Flaherty, instead, locates creativity in a robust interaction of the temporal lobes of both brain hemispheres and the limbic system, a complex and admittedly blurry network of structures beneath the cerebral cortex. Where the temporal lobes enable us to understand word meanings, the limbic system produces emotion, drive, and, she adds, the delicious sensation of being inspired. "The region where the limbic system interacts most directly with the language system is the temporal lobe," she writes. "This strong link underlies the importance of emotion and drive to creativity."

Drive may be more important than talent in producing creative works, she says, citing psychologist Dean Simonton's "Darwinian theory of creativity," which predicts that the most creative people are also the most productive. (High productivity lets artists discard inferior ideas, enabling only the fittest to survive.) The implication is that for every published book, the writer churns out hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of lousy prose.

Certain brain-wave changes in the temporal lobes prompt this drive to write, Flaherty says. EEGs can verify these changes, which may also arise from epileptic seizures, manic depression, or mood disorders—and can prompt "hypergraphia," the medical term for an overwhelming desire to write. She reports that temporal lobe epilepsy "does not always, or even usually, create talented writers. What it can create is writers who are extraordinarily motivated." Suspected temporal lobe epileptics include Tennyson, Poe, Byron, Molière, Petrarch, and Dante. Hypergraphia, which afflicted Dostoevsky, Flaubert, van Gogh, and da Vinci, is more common.

Hypergraphics produce vast amounts of text, much of it on personally meaningful philosophical or autobiographical subjects. "Unabomber" Theodore Kacyznski '62 offers one example, Flaherty says, and maudlin diarists another. But all hypergraphics are motivated by the same thing: "a strong, conscious, internal drive—say, pleasure—rather than an external influence [such as money]." Flaherty herself has experienced hypergraphic periods, triggered by postpartum mood disorder following the traumatic deaths of her premature twins. "For 10 days I was filled with sorrow," she writes. "Then suddenly, as if someone had thrown a switch, I was wildly agitated, full of ideas, all of them pressing to be written down. The world was flooded with meaning. I believed I had unique access to the secrets of the Kingdom of Sorrow."

Creative writers in general, she argues, are profoundly affected and presumably inspired by the artist's trademark albatross, suffering: bereavement, illness, exile, "narcissistic injury" to self-esteem, adolescence, war, and unhappy love. "Suffering triggers limbic system and temporal lobe activity through their roles in emotion," Flaherty writes, "and increases the desire to write and communicate."

But suffering can also prevent writing: writer's block, she says, is not really the opposite of hypergraphia. "Writers can be hypergraphic and blocked at the same time," she explains, mentioning the graduate student who crafts lengthy e-mails but just can't finish the dissertation. "[B]eing unable to communicate can cause depression, which in turn can cause an inability to communicate." Writer's block correlates with depression and anxiety, two psychiatric disorders that show decreases in brain activity in the frontal lobes especially—suggesting a different neurological origin from hypergraphia, which coincides with temporal lobe activity.

The beauty of Flaherty's theories is that they are imminently testable. Functional MRIs will enable scientists to determine which patterns of brain activity underlie creativity. And the emerging technology of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), in which a hand-held device not only captures images of brain activity but can affect it, promises further research insights.

TMS technology is in its infancy, however, and scientists are just starting to use functional MRI in creativity studies. Flaherty soon begins experiments using both technologies to probe her hypotheses about idea generation—she acknowledges that most of her theories in this burgeoning field remain untested—but her optimism is clear: "Although creativity is transcendent, it is also, paradoxically, immanent—something science can help."

~Catherine Dupree

 

Alice W. Flaherty e-mail address: [email protected]